(James Mangold, 2013)
I can't figure out James Mangold. He seems one of those directors who exists to make the auteur theory seem like nonsense.
Not that he doesn't have consistent thematic interests and concerns - he seems to like stories focusing on individuals at the heart of a storm of events, and he obviously appreciates some 1970s grit in his cinema - but that his films vary so shockingly in terms of quality. His first two films as writer-director promised a great career. Heavy is a sensitive, layered character drama, full of great performances. Copland is a gripping and underrated police corruption thriller, mixing in some Western tropes and a few iconic '70s stars for good measure while dragging a career-best performance from Sylvester Stallone. And then Mangold stumbled. A few times. Girl, Interrupted, Identity and Kate & Leopold are all confused failures, and although the commercial and critical success of Walk the Line suggested redemption, to my eyes, it is a prime biopic bingo movie, stuffed with cliches, overplayed, and never as interesting as the events it dramatises.
After that he went genre again, with the excellent, classical Western remake 3:10 to Yuma, then the nightmarish mess of compromise and tonal shifts that is Knight and Day. Which brings us to The Wolverine. Rewritten by the talented Scott Frank and the not-so-talented Mark Bombeck from Chris McQuarrie's (reportedly far grittier and more down-to-earth) original script, it aims to rejuvenate the labouring franchise career of Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) after the disaster of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Here he is summoned to Tokyo by the terminally ill business tycoon whose life he saved while he was a POW at Nagasaki on a certain day in 1945. Logan is a mess when we meet him here; still struggling with his role in the death of Jean Grey at the end of Brett Ratner's excreable X-Men: The Last Stand, he has visions of her in his sleep, and basically suffers through his immortality. Well; Japan changes that, plunging him into a gangwar involving yakuza, Ninja, a mutant scientist named Viper, and introducing him to Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Ultimately, after a long spell without his healing factor, Logan learns he has a reason to live, after all. That reason is basically fighting masses of disposable henchmen - here he takes on tattooed, suited yakuza mobsters and an army of ninjas. Mangold is a serviceable action director, no more, setting the most memorable fight scene here atop a speeding bullet train. The finale finds Logan facing off against an enormous armoured samurai battle-suit, and there are a few other martial arts setpieces scattered through the film.
None of them are terrific, however. Instead, The Wolverine is average for most of its duration, dipping into troughs of downright dull all too often. Mangold evidently tries hard to sell the character moments, and Logan's angst is delved into too many times in scenes which are too familiar and mannered to seem anything more than self-parody. The romance occurs during a brief idyll by the sea, but it plays like it came right out of a screenwriting manual, and for all Jackman's commitment and understanding of the role, the emotional material here sits awkwardly with the super-hero stuff. Logan is tortured by his past and inability to die - until its time to kick as, at which point he just kicks ass. That might not be so bad if it was tunning, breathtaking ass-kicking. But it's not.
There are far too many minor characters wheeled in the push plot developments, and despite some nice technical credits - it always looks and sounds good- The Wolverine is a dull, oddly compromised super-hero movie.